Bird Watcher's General Store

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You Can Only See Snowcocks in the Mountains of Nevada or in the Movie The Big Year

Dear Bird Folks,

Based on your recommendation, I bought a copy of the birding movie, The Big Year. I have enjoyed the movie, but I wish they did a better job of explaining the back-story for us new birders. For example, in one scene two birders took a hair-raising helicopter ride to see birds called “snowcocks.” What are snowcocks and why did they need a helicopter to see them?

– Ray, Brattleboro, VT


You are right, Ray,


I think The Big Year is a fun movie, but a little too much of the material was directed at the hardcore birders and less toward the novices. I don’t know why they did it that way. Most serious birders probably didn’t even see the movie. That’s because birders would much rather spend their time outside chasing birds than sitting inside a dark theater, picking Milk Duds off the bottom of their shoes. As for snowcocks themselves, they are rather odd birds, but not as odd as calling delicious chocolate and caramel candies “Milk Duds.” What went on in that meeting?

I don’t know if you have ever been to Nevada, but except for the casinos, some silver and gold mining and a couple of brothels, there isn’t much else going on. A great deal of the state is covered in desert or semi-arid land, and that limits the state’s wildlife population. Thus, the local hunters don’t have enough things to kill. To remedy this, the Nevada Fish and Game Commission thought it would be a good idea to import some resilient game birds, birds that could live the state’s harsh environment. But where could they find such birds? In nearby Pakistan, of course. In 1961, state officials went to an area called “Hunza” (which today is part of northern Pakistan) and captured six Himalayan Snowcocks. Snowcocks are large, sturdy grouse-like birds that live in, as their name implies, mountainous areas. For some strange reason known only to them, snowcocks love rugged, open, inaccessible mountain slopes…and that’s what Nevada has plenty of.

When in their natural habitat these hardy birds can handle the harshest weather, but they don’t do so well when they are stuffed into cages. Only one of the six captured snowcocks survived the trip to the States. When the lone bird finally arrived in Nevada, the officials couldn’t decide which hunter should be allowed to shoot it, so they opted to go back to Hunza and capture some more. Over the next two decades, wild and game farm-raised snowcocks were released in and around the Ruby Mountains, and slowly their population grew. Today, a few hundred Himalayan Snowcocks live and breed in the remote mountains of Nevada. And while this introduction program has been semi-successful, most hunters aren’t interested. It’s just too hard, expensive and frustrating to hunt a bird that lives in such an inaccessible area. However, there is another group that is even more obsessive than hunters and this new group also has a great interest in snowcocks. Yup, you guessed it. I’m talking about those wacky bird watchers.

According to the birding rules, as I understand them, an introduced bird must live and breed in the wild for ten years before it can be “counted” as an official sighting. Rock Pigeons, House Sparrows, European Starlings, Mute Swans and Ring-neck Pheasants are all examples of introduced birds that birders are allowed to count for their North American life lists. Now, Himalayan Snowcocks can be added to their lists. In the movie, The Big Year, three hardcore birders were competing to see who could spot the greatest number of bird species in a single year. Even the most amateur bird watcher can spot a pigeon or a starling, but only the crazy birders are dedicated enough to try to find a snowcock. Spotting a snowcock takes days of hiking, through rough mountain terrain and a lot of luck. The birders in the movie (and in real life) didn’t have the time, or the energy, to do all of the hiking. (Remember, we are talking about birders after all). So, they rent a helicopter to fly them up to where the snowcocks live. The helicopter scene provided some exciting moments in the movie, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Birding from a chopper doesn’t make for a very fulfilling birding experience. It’s like seeing Paris from the back of a tour bus. What’s the point?

When they aren’t avoiding hunters, birders and helicopters, snowcocks spend their day in coveys searching for food. Because they are such chubby birds, snowcocks can only fly short distances and only downhill, which is why they like mountains so much. Each morning they fly down to a feeding area and then slowly walk back up the mountain, feeding on vegetation as they go. They spend their entire day eating and trudging up the mountain until they eventually reach their roosting area, where they settle down for the night and wonder why all of those weirdoes with binoculars keep staring at them.

Usually when I write about a rare bird, I inevitably get calls from folks who swear one of these birds is in their yard. This cannot be the case with the Himalayan Snowcocks, so save your dime. In the U.S., these birds only live in the mountains of Nevada and that’s it. If you want to see a snowcock, Ray, you’ll have to do a lot of hiking or rent a helicopter. But if were you I’d forget about doing any of those things and just watch the movie again. It’s easier than hiking, cheaper than a helicopter, and you get to eat Milk Duds. A win, win, win.